National School Lunch Program (NSLP)

Early Federal Aid

Last Published: 04/25/2017

By Gordon W. Gunderson 

Early Federal Aid

Although both State and local legislation authorized local school districts to provide meals for children through various means, it soon became evident that local governments and school district boards could not provide the funds necessary to carry the increasing load. Supplementary contributions by charitable organizations and individuals did not suffice. Aid from Federal sources became inevitable.

The earliest Federal aid came from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1932 and 1933 when it granted loans to several towns in southwestern Missouri to cover the cost of labor employed in preparing and serving school lunches. Such Federal assistance was expanded to other areas in 1933 and 1934 under the operations of the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, reaching into 39 States and covering the employment of 7,442 women.

Commodity Donation Program

The depression of the 1930s brought on widespread unemployment. Millions of people in the cities lost their jobs and were without means of support for themselves and their families. They were obliged to seek help through public assistance programs.

Much of the production of the farm went begging for a market, surpluses of farm products continued to mount, prices of farm products declined to a point where farm income provided only a meager subsistence. Millions of school children were unable to pay for their school lunches, and with but limited family resources to provide meals at home, the danger of malnutrition among children became a national concern. Federal assistance became essential, and Congressional action was taken in 1935 to aid both agriculture and the school lunch program.

Public Law 320 passed by the 74th Congress and approved August 24, 1936, made available to the Secretary of Agriculture an amount of money equal to 30 percent of the gross receipts from duties collected under the customs laws during each calendar year. The sums were to be maintained in a separate fund to be used by the Secretary to encourage the domestic consumption of certain agricultural commodities (usually those in surplus supply) by diverting them from the normal channels of trade and commerce. The object of this legislation was to remove price-depressing surplus foods from the market through government purchase and dispose of them through exports and domestic donations to consumers in such a way as not to interfere with normal sales.

Needy families and school lunch programs became constructive outlets for the commodities purchased by the USDA under the terms of such legislation. Many needy school children could not afford to pay for lunches and were sorely in need of supplementary foods from a nutritional standpoint. Thus they would be using foods at school which would not otherwise be purchased in the marketplace and farmers would be helped by obtaining an outlet for their products at a reasonable price. The purchase and distribution program was assigned in 1935 to the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation which had been established in 1933 as the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation to distribute surplus pork, dairy products, and wheat to the needy. In March 1937, there were 3,839 schools receiving commodities for lunch programs serving 342,031 children daily. Two years later, the number of schools participating had grown to 14,075 and the number of children had risen to 892,259.

In a still further effort to be of assistance, the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (and later the Surplus Marketing Administration) employed a special representative in each State in 1939-1940 to work with State and local school authorities, Parent-Teacher Associations, mothers' clubs and similar organizations in an effort to expand the school lunch program.

The growth of the program from 1939 to 1942 is evidence of the success of their efforts. During that period the number of schools participating increased by 78,841, and the number of pupils participating increased by 5,272,540. The 1941-42 school year became the peak year in participation and in the use of commodities in school lunch programs before the effects of World War II upon the food supply became evident. During that year, 454 million pounds of food valued at over $21 million were allotted to schools.

The distribution of commodities was made possible through the teamwork of Federal, State and local governmental units. Vast quantities of foods were distributed to needy families and charitable institutions, in addition to those distributed to schools. It was essential, therefore, to have an effective administrative organization at each level of government as well as physical facilities to care for the warehousing, packaging and distribution of the foods.

At the State level, a director of commodity distribution was responsible for the proper administration of the program, including the ordering of the foods from the Government, arranging for proper warehousing at strategic points throughout the State, setting up and maintaining adequate records to account for the receipt and distribution of all foods shipped into the State, and reporting to the Federal Government from time to time as required.

Generally, foods were received in carload lots and placed in storage at various warehouses. From these points, they were transferred (generally by truck) to county warehouses maintained by the county agencies. From this point they were either distributed by truck to the individual families and schools entitled to receive them, or such recipients called at the county warehouse for their allotments.

Before an agency such as a school board, P.T.A., mothers' club, or other civic or social organization sponsoring a school lunch program could receive surplus commodities, it was required to enter into a written agreement with the state distributing agency providing substantially:

  • That the commodities would be used for preparation of school lunches on the school premises.
  • That the commodities would not be sold or exchanged.
  • That the food purchases would not discontinued or curtailed because of the receipt of surplus foods.
  • That the program would not be operated for profit.
  • That the children who could not pay for their meals would not be segregated or discriminated against and would not be identified to their peers.
  • That proper warehousing would be provided and proper accounting would be rendered for all foods received.

At first, commodities were allotted to schools based upon the number of undernourished and underprivileged children participating in the program. However, this was soon changed to an allotment based on the total number of children participating in the program.

The maximum quantity of any food that any school could receive was based upon a maximum quantity per child per month established by USDA. This method of allocation persists to this day, with the exception that for some items the allocation is unlimited if the supply is adequate.

W.P.A. Assistance

Although the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided some financial assistance in payment of labor employed in the school lunch program from 1932 to 1934, it was not until the advent of the Works Progress Administration (later changed to Work Projects Administration) that a very substantial contribution from Federal sources became available in this area of program operations. This agency was created in 1935 to provide work for needy persons on public works projects.

School lunch work was assigned to the Community Service Division of W.P.A. Since there were unemployed, needy women in nearly every city, town, village and rural community of the country, the preparation and serving of school lunches became a very ready area of employment to which such women could be assigned. In addition, they could be employed as bakers, clerks, typists, etc. where the size and nature of the program warranted.

The work was under the direction of a W.P.A. supervisor at the State level. This supervisor, in turn, had a supporting staff of district and local school lunch supervisors who called on the workers in the individual schools to give them needed direction and help. The supervisory staff was generally chosen from people who had special knowledge and abilities in food service. Menus, recipes, and manuals were developed at the State and district supervisory levels which were of inestimable value to the local cooks and helpers in the performance of their duties and did much to improve the quality of the meals served as well as to set standards for equipment, sanitation, and safety in the lunch program. With much of the labor being provided without cost to a school district, lunch prices were held to a minimum, more children participated and the natural outcome was a very rapid expansion in the program throughout the Nation.

In some areas, projects involving canning foods for the lunch program were undertaken during the summer months when schools were not in session. At times, this involved the preservation of fresh fruits or vegetables received as surplus items, while in some school districts and communities garden projects were set up to provide additional foods for the school lunch program. Some of these foods were canned by personnel employed by the W.P.A.

In March 1941, W.P.A school lunch programs were in operation in all States, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, providing help in 23,160 schools serving an average of nearly 2 million lunches daily, and employing 64,298 persons.

N.Y.A. Assistance

The National Youth Administration was another Federal agency which also provided assistance to the school lunch program. This agency was also founded in 1935, having as its purpose job training for unemployed youth and providing part-time work for needy students. Since they could be employed only under adult supervision, N.Y.A employees did not manage lunch programs but supplied much needed assistance as part-time helpers. They also supplied help in making tables, chairs and other equipment for the lunchrooms. In April, 1941 over 16,000 youths were employed in school lunch projects in 42 States, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Effects of World War II

In February 1942, the school lunch program operating under the assistance from W.P.A and N.Y.A and receiving donated foods reached 92,916 schools serving 6 million children daily.

The effect of World War II upon the nation's economy was making itself evident, however. As defense industries provided work for more and more people, W.P.A payrolls declined sharply, and the agency's activities came to a close in the early part of 1943.

The huge supply of food required for the support of U.S. Armed Forces and allies soon drained off farm surpluses, except for a few sporadic over-supplies of some items from time to time. Consequently, the kinds and quantities of foods available for distribution to school lunch programs became comparatively negligible, dropping from the high of 454 million pounds in 1942 to 93 million pounds in 1944. Labor supplied by W.P.A had been completely eliminated. The effect upon the school lunch program was dramatically shown.

By April 1944, there were only 34,064 schools serving some 5 million children in the program. But a further decline was not to occur.

Authorization of Federal Funds

The 78th Congress in July 1943 enacted Public Law 129, amending Section 32 of the Agricultural Act of 1935, authorizing the expenditure of Section 32 funds not in excess of $60 million for maintaining the school lunch and school milk programs during the fiscal year July 1, 1943, to June 30, 1944.

This assistance was in the form of cash subsidy payments to school lunch sponsors for the purchase of food for the program. No part of the funds could be used for the payment of labor or for the purchase of equipment. Without it the decline in participation previously noted would undoubtedly have been even more drastic. It took time to reach schools with the information, place the procedures into operation, and re-establish programs which had closed down.

The following year there was an improvement in legislation and a further expansion of the program. Under the provisions of Public Law 367, the 78th Congress again set aside $50 million of Section 32 funds for carrying on the school lunch program in 1944-45, and extended the authority to include child care centers. For the first time, the legislation also provided some details as to conditions under which Federal assistance could be received:

  • Cash payments could not exceed the cost of food purchased for use in the program.
  • Accurate records of cost of food had to be maintained.
  • Total payments of Federal funds in any State could not exceed the total amount provided for food purchases by the school lunch sponsors, school districts, or other sources within the State, including the value of donated services and supplies.

Again for the 1945-46 school year, the same amount was appropriated as in the previous year, but the legislation included a provision that not more than two percent of the funds allotted to any State could be used for lunch programs in child care centers. Because of a rapid expansion of the program, Congress appropriated an additional $7.5 million in December 1945, in order to continue the payments to schools until the end of the school year. By April 1946, the program had expanded to include 45,119 schools serving 6.7 million children daily, representing an increase of some 11,000 schools and about 1.5 million children over the 1943-44 school year.


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